‘Robert Ellis of Welton, Mathematical Exercise Book’ circa 1750 (archive-ref DDX1203/1)
For a great number of people, the very mention of the word ‘mathematics’ often conjures memories of unhappy lessons at school, being made to recite times tables in front of the whole class. But at least in this day and age, those of us who are less numerically gifted can rely on the use of a calculator. Spare a thought then, for the people who lived in a time when good old fashioned brain power was the only way of solving difficult sums. That is what Robert Ellis of Welton had to do back in the 18th century, as is shown by his exercise book.
The book, which appears to date from around 1760, contains calculations and problem solving puzzles covering various topics such as ‘reduction’, ‘simple interest’, ‘brokage’, ‘profit and loss’, ‘fellowship’, ‘simple multiplication’, ‘ale and beer measure’, ‘alligation’ and foreign currency.
It was found in an 18th century house in Elloughton, near Brough, where it had been placed inside one of the stairs, and remained undiscovered until building work was carried out on the house. The book’s new owners then decided to ensure its preservation by depositing it with East Riding Archives at the Treasure House in Beverley.
It’s unknown whether Mr Ellis was a teacher or student. The book seems to cover the kind of mathematics that you might use in commercial enterprises and is quite advanced, so it could perhaps relate to accounting or something similar, but no-one knows for sure.
The most curious feature of this document is the fact that it had been hidden inside a stair for so long, possibly more than two hundred years.
Try some of these questions for yourself with our 18th Century Maths activity.
By Sam Bartle
Digital Archivist / Editor